ATHENS, Ga. — During Auburn’s first two losses of the season, Gus Malzahn used multiple quarterbacks.
On Saturday night, his commitment to play just one loomed large in the Tigers’ third-and-most-painful loss of 2016.
Malzahn stuck with sophomore starting quarterback Sean White from the beginning to the bitter conclusion of Auburn’s 13-7 loss at Georgia — one that featured the program’s worst offensive production since 2012 and the second-worst yardage total of his collegiate coaching career at 164 total yards.
“He’s our quarterback,” Malzahn said after the game. “Obviously, we’ll look at things. … We’ll look at things after this game and have a plan moving forward. Sean has been our quarterback and has done a good job up to this point.”
Auburn used all three of its quarterbacks in a season-opening 19-13 loss to Clemson. Two weeks after that, John Franklin III came in to replace White in the fourth quarter of a 29-16 defeat to Texas A&M.
This might be an overreaction: But I'd go with John Franklin III. White just isn't himself right now.
— Benjamin Wolk (@benjaminwolk) November 12, 2016
Franklin never took a snap at quarterback Saturday, even when White was obviously struggling in a second-half performance that produced zero first downs. White, who sustained an injury to his throwing shoulder against Ole Miss, finished 6-for-20 passing for 27 yards and a game-tying pick six.
After the game, Malzahn doubled down on his confidence in White, even though he said the injury that sidelined the quarterback for the first half last weekend against Vanderbilt led to zero pass attempts in practice for a second straight week.
“He’s obviously not 100 percent,” Malzahn said. “He didn’t practice again this past week throwing the football. But he’s a tough guy. That’s who got us here, and that’s who we went with today. … He hadn’t been able to throw with his receivers in two weeks. But he goes out there and plays. He got hit early.”
According to several Auburn players after the game, White participated in practice this week.
“Well, you know Sean, he practiced with us this week,” sophomore H-back Chandler Cox said. “They were trying to take it easy on him because he’s a little banged up; we’re all banged up. John has been in there, and just taking those reps and everyone’s been in there. … But I don’t think that affected us at all.”
“Sean has taken reps in first-team drills,” senior left guard Alex Kozan said. “Not every drill, because they want to protect his arm and let him heal up, but (White, Franklin and Jeremy Johnson) take reps.”
Auburn’s woes in the passing game didn’t fall squarely on White’s shoulders — even the one hampered by injury. The Tigers allowed a pair of sacks, dropped several passes and had a couple snapping issues.
“We didn’t block for him like we were supposed to,” sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson said. “Every time he dropped back he was having two or three seconds, and that’s hard. It’s hard to play quarterback that way. They did a lot of things in coverage; they’re athletes. They got scholarships just like we did, and they just outplayed us.”
Still, the Auburn coaching staff continued to call dropbacks for a less-than-100 percent White. He threw back-to-back incompletions before the pick six on the first drive of the second half. He had three more drives that featured nothing but pass plays.
2nd half, Auburn faced 3rd down conversions of 10, 2, 2, 2, 10, 5, and 2 yards. It attempted a pass or a QB draw on all 7, going 0/7.
— Jerry Hinnen (@JerryHinnen) November 13, 2016
Even with White’s struggles — he threw nine straight incompletions at one point — Franklin and senior Jeremy Johnson never came in to provide that “spark.” Franklin only threw for 9 yards on 4 pass attempts in the first half last week against Vanderbilt, when he made his first career start.
But Malzahn said he remains confident in Franklin and Johnson to throw the ball if necessary. He just wanted to stick with his starter.
“I have more confidence in Sean White,” Malzahn said. “He led us up to this point. He wasn’t 100 percent. Should’ve, could’ve. We’ll look at that. We’ll look at that moving forward. We had confidence in Sean White.”
Malzahn placed that confidence in White after the Texas A&M game, even when Franklin jump-started Auburn’s offense in the fourth quarter.
Auburn rattled off six straight wins behind the sophomore and tried to grind out one more through his injury and others on the offensive side.
That didn’t happen, and now the bruised-and-battered Tigers head to the Iron Bowl in two weeks against newly crowned SEC West champion Alabama.
“Sean is our guy,” Malzahn said. “He’s not 100 percent, but he got us here. That was our plan coming in. There were a lot of guys not 100 percent. But, hey, that’s part of it.”